Amanda Hocking, JL Bryan, Robert DuPerre, ... and me.
"This Silent Country" first appeared in Dark Tomorrows, a dark SF/ horror anthology currently available through Amazon, B&N, and elsewhere.
Darkly twisted and set in a dystopic far future, "This Silent Country" is a little different than my usual paranormal romance and YA fare. Ok, a lot different. I quite enjoy horror and dark SF. I hope you enjoy it, too.
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This Silent Country
"Thhh," the pretty graduate student prompted, her pink tongue touching white teeth. "Come on, Finn. We've done this sound before."
Finn liked gutturals and sibilance. Hisses and growls and low howls of anguish. He hated making people sounds the most. Outside, the low winter moons cast their dim light across Skrael’s frozen landscape. Beyond the University compound’s security field, cold white silence stretched on for kilometers. Finn wished he could walk out into the silence and stay there. Snow crystals and winter moons would not force his tongue into nonsense shapes. The inhuman cold of this barely habitable planet would kill the silent and the speaking equally fast. Almost as fast as the Skraeling beasts that prowled its hard surface.
"Finn.” The graduate student softened her voice in an invitation to trust her. “Is there a reason you won’t talk today? I notice you keep looking at the snowscape. Are you well, Finn?”
Well. He tasted the word. Is that what I am? He didn’t know. In a minute, she would call in a supervisor or even a psych specialist. Finn was tired of them. He visualized the sounds in his mind, willing them to come out right. He laid them down like smooth paving stones.
"Teh- thhh," he managed half-heartedly.
"You got that last one right. Let's try again." Finn squirmed in his chair.
“Teh-teh-thh,” he spat, sick of the routine. Her face fell as she darted a nervous glance at the mirror. The mirror that was really a window that he wasn’t supposed to know about. Who was back there, anyway?
The door burst open so fast and hard that it struck a plastic chair and sent it crashing against the wall. “You’re relieved,” his grandfather thundered, looking only at Finn. The graduate student scuttled backwards. Finn did not have to look to see her trembling. They all reacted like that, every single person who dealt with his grandfather.
Everyone but him.
“Commander, I’m sorry, I was… we were really close,” the girl stammered.
“Enough,” snapped Commander Iverson. The girl fled.
Finn couldn’t flee. He watched as his grandfather, commander of the northern settlement on Skrael, dropped into a chair in front of him. Hard blue eyes identical to his own caught and pinned him. “No growling today?” the older man asked. “Have you decided to act civilly?”
Finn didn’t answer. He hadn’t decided. Instead, he cast a sly glance at the snowscape, imagining the Skraelings as they ghosted across flat diamond ground unrelieved by any kind of shadow. After the attack, all family settlements relocated back to the main University or the military outpost in the south. Then his grandfather led a team that destroyed every last family home so that the beasts would have no cover.
“You go someplace else in your head, don’t you, Finn?” his grandfather asked. “Someplace violent. Someplace scary.”
Finn pressed his lips together. Grandfather had it wrong, but he wasn’t treating him like a baby who’d forgotten how to talk. He hadn’t ever, not even when he came to take Finn away from the emergency responders.
Finn had woken that night to his parent’s screams. He didn’t know how long he hid under his bed, but when Emergency came for him, his parents had already been devoured. Torn up, chewed on, butchered.
After the first screams, he hadn’t heard a thing.
He remembered cold, and silence, and looking out into the luminous chunks of snow through the vidscreen his parents had set to “view” as they did every night. He saw nothing, heard nothing, and felt nothing. Emergency whispered things like “shock” and “trauma” when he couldn’t answer their questions. When he tried to describe the cold white peace that came over him during the killings, the doctors keyed their data pads furiously. Then they sent him here. He wanted to tell them: it’s not that I can’t talk about it. Human words don’t work; there are only beast sounds.
He saw he was making fists again, and stilled himself. Fists made everyone nervous, even though they worked better than words.
Finn decided to try to explain. “Not scary.” His grandfather didn’t move. “It’s safe. The place I go.”
Grandfather rubbed his stubbly face. He never had a stubbly face before the attack. “This safe place. Can you go there now?” Finn shook his head. The white place just happened. He didn’t go there, like it was school or his bedroom.
A doctor entered with a small box. Finn smelled fear rolling off him in waves. “Sir, are you quite sure? We don’t know how long the effects linger. He could still be infect…”
“Enough.” Grandfather cut him off sharply. “That’s what we have to find out.” When they were alone again, Grandfather touched his hair. It was a rare gesture. He lowered his voice. “I won’t let them take you, Finn. No matter what I have to do.” He straightened and pulled things from the box. A necklace. An old watch. “Recognize anything?” Finn shook his head. “They belonged to your parents.”
Then Grandfather, grimacing, removed a piece of a bloodstained blanket.
“That’s mine,” Finn said in clear, perfectly unaccented Republic Standard. “But… they weren’t in my room. The Skrael beasts weren’t. I was in my room. Nothing happened there.” He realized he was standing, fists raised.
“Nothing, Finn?” his grandfather asked softly. He suddenly looked very old.
He felt it, then, the cold white feeling rising. It cut through him like a wind blast. It was blinding as diamond ice and just as numbing. He welcomed it; he’d missed it, for while it held him, he answered to nothing else.
But it faded, as it always did, and Finn found himself in a sterile while room with overturned chairs and a broken table. His grandfather was bleeding from a long gash down one side of his stubbly face. He had his blaster out.
“Why won’t my arms or legs work?” Finn asked him.
Grandfather looked at him so sadly and for so long that he wondered if perhaps he had lost people speech, too. But he finally lifted Finn in his arms. “Let’s get you to Med Center.” Then, with forced cheerfulness, he said “You seem to have recovered your words.”
Maybe, Finn thought as his arms and legs tingled their way back from numbness. But he didn’t have to like it. Instead, he thought of low winter, letting its ice wrap around his heart.
"Jesus, Iverson," Sumner yelled above the roar of the busy cantina at lunchtime. "Watch the beverage, compadre. This place is so damn busy, it might be closing time before we get another one."
Finn realized he was holding a full pitcher of foamy beer suspended in mid-air. Across the room, the brown-skinned bus boy who'd delivered it tried to shake an angry customer off his arm. The customer kept demanding his food, getting more and more belligerent; the boy tried to explain, first in Spanish, then in broken English, that he had no idea where his order was. Not broken English, Finn realized. A stutter. The boy stuttered. The customer frightened him, and he’d lost his words. Relieved to have pinned down the source of his irritation, he placed the pitcher carefully in the center of the table. It was their third, and his fellow soldiers were well on their way to getting drunk. What else was there to do near Earth’s equator at high noon? But he resolved to keep an eye on the boy anyway. Finn hated bullies.
"No worries with Iverson," Jacob Anders assured them all. Anders had served with Finn on three special-ops missions before. "His brain is completely separate from the rest of him.” Anders grabbed the pitcher and began filling mugs. Finn shook his head. Anders shrugged and skipped his glass.
Finn contemplated a chip dripping salsa like an open wound. "I could take that as an insult, Anders," he said mildly, popping the whole chip in his mouth.
“I put up with your shit for years at the Academy, and I’m still stuck with you.” The skinny blond man leaned back in his seat, his boots propped carelessly on the back of their newest member's chair. "I get a special dispensation," he said firmly, drinking deeply.
"What, to be a pain in my ass?" Finn asked softly. Everything he did was soft, slow, and deliberate. Just as he had learned to lay his words out carefully as a boy, to make sure he got them right, he had learned to do the same with his thoughts and actions and even with his body.
Cedric Meyers, newest member of the elite Red Hands special ops unit and his friend’s grumpy footstool, rolled his eyes and banged his mug against the table. "Jesus, please. Someone put this arrogant Aussie bastard in his place." The blond Anders kicked him; Meyers slammed his mug down and spun in his chair.
"You wouldn't dare," Anders challenged, eyes shining.
"What?" Meyers growled again, his midnight eyes narrowed to slits. But a smile fought the curve of his mouth. "Start a fight in this cantina at noon? 'Cause you kicked me? Think again, asshole. I've killed men for less."
“That’s enough,” Commander Hale chided, finally speaking up. "Save it for the mission." Later, in the cool of the evening and the security of their quarters, they'd go over the operation again. Watch a nearby group of rebels before extracting a deep-cover Republic agent from their midst.
For now they were content to play the part of regular soldiers, just a handful among many, stationed in South America at the request of Earth's Central Council in an effort to stabilize the area. Civil war was ripping the northern hemisphere apart as the overdeveloped nations made desperate grabs for plentiful South American resources. Refugees streamed south through what had once been Mexico. Things were getting messy.
Can't have the United Republic’s home planet seem anything other than perfectly peaceful, Finn thought with a snort, and then swung his attention back to the belligerent customer who'd harassed the bus boy. It seemed he'd found a new victim. A young, very pretty victim. The waitress couldn't be very far out of her teens, with skin like pale cinnamon and dark curls down to her waist, threaded through with a loose violet ribbon. She struggled to pull free of the man's grip on her arm, telling him sharply in Spanish, English, and French that he was making a mistake, but the man only laughed. Finn grew very still. U.F. forces were the only real peacekeepers in the rapidly destabilizing region. No one would step in against a U.F. soldier, except another bigger, badder one. He watched and kept his silence.
His silence always preceded a storm.
"Are we released, then?" Finn asked tightly. He took note of the customer's rank, branch of service, what he'd eaten for lunch, the number of empty shot glasses stacked at his elbow, the strength of his grasp on his new victim's arm, and the way the young boy stood protectively near the girl.
"Until tonight," Commander Hale agreed. His glance skimmed over all of them. Finn sat so perfectly still, betraying no emotion at all, that he thought Hale noticed nothing. "Time for a siesta. It's going to be a long night. Get some rest, and stay out of trouble. Especially you two, Meyers and Anders." Jacob Anders grinned wickedly and mimed a halo around his head.
"Still kick your ass. At poker," Meyers offered. “Anybody else in?" Several assents followed the two men out of the cantina. Only Commander Hale lingered, watching Finn with thoughtful eyes.
"Something on your mind, Commander?" Finn asked. He gave Hale the full brunt of his gaze, but every other sense was on the situation unfolding just a few tables in front of them. The boy wouldn’t leave her side. The girl had gone perfectly still, her face hidden in her mass of curls. Her arm was turning red and purple where the soldier gripped her. Finn felt himself go cold and very still. These were the symptoms of a killing rage, the kind that made him such an asset to the Red Hands. It was the reason he’d been recruited; he was too violent for regular service, too solitary for intelligence and espionage. But the clinical detachment he felt towards killing, the cold white veil he’d carried with him since childhood, was perfect for the Red Hands.
Hale just nodded behind him, never once turning his head. "I trust you'll be discreet," he said. "We need you, maybe more than anyone, in good form for this, Iverson."
Finn shouldn't have been surprised as he watched his commander walk away, but he was. No other member of the Red Hands had noticed. Or maybe they just hadn't given a damn. But Hale was Commander for a reason. He noticed things. Sometimes, he even cared.
Her name was Elena.
For the rest of his life, in whatever dark place he found himself, he never forgot her face, even if it was all he could remember about her, and if only for the span of a breath.
"Be discreet," Hale had said.
Finn tried. He really, really tried. He grabbed the chair across from the man who held the girl. He turned it around backwards, throwing his weight into it as if it had offered him personal insult. Everyone at the table looked at him, including her. When that happened, all of his control, all of his careful plans came crashing down like a house of cards.
He meant to say, "Enough of this," or, "What kind of soldier picks on women and kids?" Or just "I'm your worst fucking nightmare and I'm here to kick your ass." It would have been hard to ignore that one.
But the woman he came to know as Elena looked at him, holding herself as still as a baby rabbit pulled unwilling into the light. Her shoulders, half-hidden by a mass of curls, shook slightly. Her eyes were huge and deep and brown, as if none of this made any sense to her at all, as if she had suddenly awoken on a strange planet, in a body not her own. Those dark brown eyes sought his and held them. They were fringed with lashes thick as black velvet, and as he watched, they grew impossibly bright and wet.
The tears were his undoing. Already she had taught him something: it was better to kill some things than watch them cry.
The soldier he meant to punish was hurting her with words. Perhaps no one had ever spoken to her in such a manner before, turning her arm dark purple with bruises while he suggested the things they could do in the dark. Perhaps no one had ever told her that his friends would like to watch, too. Perhaps no one had ever put a price on her body. Finn watched as things broke inside her, innocent things he didn't think were left alive anywhere, in any person. All he could think was: not her. The room turned white and cold as a Skrael winter sky. Time slowed down around him as it always did when he was in a killing rage.
"Get away," he managed to say in plain, cold English, to the enraged boy behind them. The boy who talked funny. The boy who’d made him remember his grandfather and low winter moons and started all of this. The boy took one look at his face and went.
Smart boy, he had time to think as he reached out and grabbed the soldier by the wrist. He heard a satisfying snapping sound and watched as the man's squat, fleshy fingers slowly loosened from her arm. Finn saw the finger marks flood from white to red to deep purple. His other hand held a fistful of the soldier's hair. It moved towards the table too slowly, skin and hair separating from scalp like a peach peel leaking blood. Finn had time to clear the table before he cracked the man's head against it. Table and chairs scattered. He twisted the soldier's arm behind him and heard yet another satisfying snap. The man's mouth was open. He might have been screaming, but that was another thing the cold white rage did. It kept the screaming out.
When the man collapsed at Finn's feet the room began to return to normal. Time sped up. His heart beat again, breathing returned, fast and hard, and emotions crept back in. Rage. Hate. A strange, fierce protectiveness that was new to him.
The girl with the violet ribbon slipped up to him from a spot of sunlight in the middle of the floor. Her touch across his hand was like a live wire finding wet skin. "You're bleeding," she said, pulling his knuckles close to her face. "Are you hurt elsewhere?"
"I was... wa... I..." Finn snapped his mouth shut. He couldn't gather his thoughts, his speech. He hadn’t lost his words since he left home to join the U. F. He just shook his head, sharply, angry with himself.
She ran one thumb over his bloody knuckles. "I understand. Sometimes the words won't come. So we wait until they do. I'm Elena, and this is Paulo, my son. He struggles with words, too." Finn stared at her, surprised. She looked too young to have a child. What kind of country was this, with its beautiful women-girls and days too hot for anything but drinking and fighting? He felt unbalanced. But Elena smiled at whatever she saw in his eyes, as if it never occurred to her that he might judge or condemn. "You had better go with us. The Policia will come, and who knows what side has bribed them today, no?"
A pattern developed.
The days were theirs. She showed him her country, with its churches, crumbling pyramids, lush patches of jungle, hidden waterfalls, tiny towns on market day, and bright obscure festivals. He was assaulted by color, sound, smell. Flowers were almost too bright, birds too beautiful and melodious. And when she stood there in the middle of it all, wearing the bright cotton skirts and embroidered blouses of her people, he felt as if he were in the midst of a hallucination.
“I come from a pale country,” he told her. “Silent and cold. This,” he swept a battle-callused hand from azure sky to sulky jungle and back to her red cotton skirt. “It’s like diving into the sun.”
She only laughed and tossed her midnight curls, winding her fingers through his, drawing him onward to some town where she knew a woman who wove baskets so tight you could use them for a boat, or a man who carved animals so life-like you would leave them food and water on the shelf, or a priest who could cure anything, even a broken heart. He bought her things, and Paulo, too, because he could. He'd never had anyone to buy things for, before her.
She cooked for him, huge picnics to eat on grass as green as jewels. He tried to describe snow and winter to Paulo, who had never left Earth’s equator. The boy listened with huge eyes while he talked about his childhood on Skrael, and going to clinics to learn how to talk. Elena listened, too. "Such a pale, silent country. I do not know if we could survive, away from the sun and all our loud colors, as you call them." Then in a whisper, as if the jungle was listening: “It frightens me.”
They were swimming naked in a pool at the bottom of a thundering waterfall. Finn tried to catch her, but she wiggled away like a fish every time. "There are other clinics, other doctors here on Earth, Elena. You would have to go to a larger city. Perhaps Rio or Mexico City." He swam towards her, serious now. She let him catch her, treading water while he gripped her shoulders. "It would be safer for you there. War is coming here soon."
It was something they did not speak of, what he did with his nights. She knew he was a special kind of soldier, but that was all. She did not ask for information and he did not give it. This was the closest he had ever come, and she had better sense than to ignore it. "I want to be with you," she whispered, fear making her stiff in the water against him. "Why can't we be with you?"
He held her so that she couldn't look away from his hard, serious eyes. "I want you to be with me. But what if something happens? I still want you safe, Elena." She whimpered against him, eyes wide. "Promise me. No matter what, you will go to Mexico City, or Rio, or someplace larger, where it is safer and Paulo can get help."
"If you promise me," she whispered back. "Promise me you will do your best to stay alive, no matter what."
"I promise," he whispered against her chilled lips, already carrying her from the water, laying her down in the soft emerald grass. Her skin was pale where her clothes hid it from the sun. He wanted to tell her he’d never promised to stay alive for anyone before. It was a hard vow, for someone like him. Someone who preferred beast sounds.
"Remember," Hale had said. "If things go to hell, we regroup at the church just after dark. This informant is in to some bad shit, some of the worst I've ever seen, and even if he is just playing along like a good double agent, I don't trust him. Drugs, slavery, illegal weapons. I can't believe U.F.’s agreed to even touch this. If the rebels act strangely, if their patterns deviate in any way, regroup at the church and we'll re-evaluate how best to extract this bastard. Got it?"
They'd gotten it. They'd all gotten it, and followed their carefully laid plan to the letter.
Of course, things had all gone to hell anyway.
Finn found himself leaning up against the side of a tree, heavy with a kind of fruit that was good to cook with, bleeding from a deep gash in his thigh. He wondered how his unit could possibly be dead, gunned down from their hidden positions or dragged out into the middle of the rebel camp and shot, execution-style.
Breadfruit, he remembered. A breadfruit tree. It smelled wonderful, like everything else here.
What saved me? Why didn't they find me? Maybe there were survivors. Maybe the Red Hands would ride again. The informant was nowhere to be found. Finn's brain spun as fast as the blood leaking down his thigh.
Why not me?
Stay alive for me, Finn. Promise.
Elena and Paulo, on their way to Rio in the morning. "Only fools and monsters travel at night in this country," she’d argued, exasperated and frightened for him. "I'll stay someplace very safe tonight, I swear it, and we'll leave at first light." She'd started crying then, and he'd spent precious minutes telling her how important she was to him, that he'd decided this mission was to be his last. He wanted a life with her, a future. He thought it would make her feel better, but she'd only cried harder.
Women. Who could understand them? Paulo gave him a look that said he agreed completely, and then Finn was gone. He was already late.
Late. He was late. He had to change positions at the last minute. Hale was pissed. But that's what saved him. He deviated. Elena saved his life.
He'd go to the church, carefully, in case anyone else had managed to get away. Then he'd go find the right someone from U.F. and explain how fucked things had gotten. It would take a long time. They'd ask a lot of questions. He hated questions. But he would be free, finally, to join Elena in Rio and take her even further away. He wondered if Africa was colorful enough for her.
That’s when he stumbled over the bodies.
Locals, not military. An older man and woman, judging by their gray hair. Their bodies looked as if they had been chewed on by wild animals. Throats ripped out, chunks of flesh missing, clothing in shreds. He sent a suspicious look towards the jungle. He didn’t trust it; it was too green, too alive. He felt the silent veil of murder descending and let it come. Tonight was dark business, some of the worst he’d ever seen.
Stay alive, no matter what. He’d promised.
The church loomed in front of him, a blot of light stone against the landscape. Candles danced within. He'd assumed it would be abandoned. Perhaps one of his teammates, half-dead from blood loss, had lit one as a signal. Maybe some careless person left a candle burning. Or maybe it was an ambush. Finn crept quietly around to the back. The stained glass made it difficult, but he thought he saw a figure near the altar. He cursed. Part of him wanted to walk away, badly, but what if it was Anders or Hale in there, injured? He found a side door and slid it open, inch by slow inch.
What he saw had him running, his universe narrowing into the cold white killing rage he so desperately needed if any of them were to have a chance.
Elena knelt before the altar, a basket of flowers at her side. Paulo took them from her, laying them in artful piles on the gold altar cloth. She looked up, saw Finn coming. Her son dropped the last flower and ran to his mother. Elena couldn't process everything: the blood, his weapons, the sheer horror on his face, or even his presence in her church. That was the only explanation for the confusion he saw there. Surely she wasn’t afraid of him. He was here to protect her. "Finn?" she said slowly. "What are you doing here? My family has used this church for years. My parents went out just a little while ago. You wanted us safe and I thought, what could be safer than... church... Finn?"
As she talked, men with guns advanced down the aisle on silent predator's feet. The informant Finn and his team had spent weeks attempting to extract was at the head of the group, weapons primed and ready.
Things changed after that. Everything was slow and smoky, as if he fought two battles. One was visceral, summoning teeth and bone and claws. It had real targets, like the informant and his men. The other was inchoate but no less desperate, like trying to sift smoke from wind, as he fought for the first time ever against the killing cold. He felt it descend, the cold blankness, and he raged against it. I want to be present, he howled to the animal inside. If she is to die, let me be present.
He tried to scream to her to get down. He thought he did, but her face didn't register his words, so he would never know if she heard him or not. It was a small life they’d built together, so small it took only seconds to die. But I only just found you, he managed to think. And then he was moving.
The killing rage had him, and he didn’t have another clear thought for forever and a heartbeat.
The informant was trying to talk, to explain something, but Finn had no sound. There were four men coming at him down the aisle. All of them had weapons. Finn had weapons, too, but he wanted to use his hands as much as possible.
He shot only to disarm, taking bullets and laser blasts when he didn't have to. After that, it was fists, hands, knives. It was tearing, ripping, snapping. It was cries and pleas he did not hear. It might have been teeth and the gulp of metal and salt on his tongue. A pulse, quick and delicate under the skin. Later he would think it had been the jungle, sending forth justice at last, to chew on the flesh of the fallen and howl and tear hair and clothes.
Animals. Animals had gotten into the church after he left it and savaged the bodies. That was the only explanation. He would remember if it had happened otherwise.
When he was done, he sat in a pew and watched the blood-slicked floor grow even bloodier as his breath returned and he remembered his own wounds. He remembered to use his belt around the gash on his thigh. He wiped at the shallow, fingernail-shaped scratches all over his face and arms. Bite marks, bullets gone straight through flesh hardly mattered. He knelt by the altar, by what was left of her, and talked to her for a while. He talked and talked. The words came so easily, when spilled to the dead.
"You were right, Elena. I come from a pale country, and there is nothing but ice inside me now. Maybe that’s all there ever was."
The United Forces of the Republic didn't know what to do with him. His entire special ops unit had been destroyed, yet he'd survived, leaving a pile of bodies behind in a church. He stuck to the same story no matter how many times they asked him. He'd been shot at. He shot back. Kill or be killed. Simple self-defense. Basic math. Yet they seemed incapable of understanding, running scenarios again and again. Eventually, Finn retreated into silence. They left him alone soon after. His silence made people nervous.
It wasn't so much the bodies as the way they'd been killed. It was the kind of brutality the U.F. wanted to distance themselves from, and quickly. The Republic would have to admit to double-dealings with drug dealers, weapons smugglers, and all kinds of unpleasantness they'd much rather just went away. But it wouldn't, as long as Finn was there, staring them in the face with his cold, dead eyes.
In the end, they just suspended him while they tried to figure out what to do with him. With pay. It was like being sent to his room when he'd been bad as a kid, except that his room had a vidscreen with the newest game console.
He wound up in San Francisco, in an antiseptic, generic apartment within walking distance of what used to be called the City Lights bookstore in the twentieth century. It was now the Central Book Depository of North America, daytime hangout of dust addicts and the homeless. At night it called for heavy armament and a certain disregard for human life. Finn had both in abundance.
It was full of actual books instead of data tabs. He stood on its steps, imagining the writers who had been there before him. Kerouac, Ginsberg. Salinger and Conrad. He'd read them all, many times over, and carried dog-eared copies of their books with him like bibles, or shields. He sensed the darkness inside them all, the emptiness. Was this how they filled it? With words on a page? He spent hours in the Depository, searching their texts like mines, looking for the ways they'd managed to plug the holes inside themselves.
His current favorite was The Catcher in the Rye. He had his nose buried in it when he heard unmistakable U.F. footsteps creeping through the stacks towards him. They never quite lost the lockstep drill formation beaten into them at the Academy.
He didn't bother looking up from his book. There were two of them, and they were armed. He thought they were probably here from headquarters to deliver his fate, but he doubted they would shoot him in the library. That was just wrong, somehow, like farting in church. Then he sobered and put the book down.
Much worse had been done in churches.
"Just tell me, and then get the hell out," he said tonelessly.
The smaller man blinked and took an involuntary step backwards. The big man pulled out a chair and sat down without invitation. Finn scowled some more. The big man reached out a finger, caressing the spine of his book. Finn jerked it away.
His action met with a chuckle. "I'm Hawkins. This is...well, nevermind." The little man bobbed his head. "So. Finn Iverson, currently on indefinite leave while U.F. decides what to do with you." Hawkins leaned forward. His eyes were dark, his features rugged. “How did it feel to kill your girlfriend?”
He moved without thinking. He had Hawkins on his back with a copy of Heart of Darkness jammed spine-first across his throat. It was a hard backed copy, leather-bound, currently cutting off the man’s sir supply. “I always… hated… that book,” Hawkins choked out, making no move to fight back.
“I found her killers,” he said softly. “All four of them. I made sure they’re extra dead. I wasn’t one of them.”
“The U.F. says you are,” Hawkins rasped. His face was an interesting shade of dark purple Finn had never seen before. “They’re…coming…” The man gagged.
“Mr. Iverson.” The littler man’s voice knifed through Finn’s anger. “My colleague is trying to tell you that U.F. headquarters have decided you are unstable at best, the sole killer behind all those bodies in the church at worst. They are coming to assign you to a psychiatric unit for intensive evaluation and what they benignly call retraining. Their words, not mine. Nor would it be a voluntary assignment.”
“They’re using me as a scapegoat?” Finn slammed Heart of Darkness down next to Hawkins’s head.
“Perhaps,” the smaller man temporized. Finn didn’t like his tone.
Hawkins’ hand descended on his shoulder like a lead weight. “Those are your choices, soldier. Go get all better,” Hawkins favored him with a sneer. “Or listen to another offer.”
The little man produced a pair of gold wire glasses. Finn had only read about them; he couldn’t help staring. Gunfire echoed through a distant wing of the library. “What a charming city. One wonders how you could bear to leave.” He sat at the nearest battered table and looked at them expectantly. “I’m Verres,” he added helpfully. “Sit, Finn.”
Finn didn’t move.
The two men shared a glance. Verres adjusted his glasses with a sigh. “Do you know of a planet named Glass?”
Finn just stared.
“We’re recruiting a small group for an extended assignment there. A group with an extremely selective skill set.” Verres looked distinctly uncomfortable. “You seem to fit the profile.”
“Even though U.F. thinks I’m a killer? Worse than their usual, I mean?” He stood in shadow, poised for…something. He didn’t know what. That was the trouble. He didn’t know any more. Finn didn’t like waiting, and he didn’t like an undefined life. Since the church, there had been nothing but.
“Precisely because U.F. thinks so,” Verres said softly.
“Look at it this way,” Hawkins said, in his booming, nearly-cheerful voice. “You’re a trained killer, no matter what happened down south. The entire planet’s a goddamn hellhole. Needs fighters more than food, and it needs food pretty damn bad. Been at war for as long as you’ve been alive. The whole goddamned planet razed down to the ground. Executed their parliament and the whole ruling family, except for one snotty little girl.” Hawkins actually looked cheerful. “Drove their whole population underground. Most of ‘em have never seen their own sunrise. You’ll love it.”
Verres looked pained. “You have good reason to seek psychiatric help, Mr. Iverson. But what if you were to look upon your affliction as a badly needed skill?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Finn snapped from his shadows. “I really don’t think you even know what you’re talking about.”
Verres produced two sets of files. Again, Finn found himself staring. No one used paper for recordkeeping anymore. Verres tapped the one closest to him. “This is all the information we’ve collected on what happened in Central America, Mr. Iverson.” He pulled out a set of photographs. Real photographs, not images. “Pay particular attention to the bite marks and the tearing of the victim’s…”
“I’ve seen them,” Finn said flatly. He felt the barest stirrings of cold rage. Hawkins slipped next to him.
Verres bowed his head. He pushed the last file towards. “I’ll ask you again to sit, Mr. Iverson. Please compare the two files. We’ll leave you alone to do so. This contains information compiled about your childhood.” Verres had strange eyes; clear, like quartz, they narrowed at Finn through the glasses. “From Skrael.”
Finn barely heard him after that. Chairs scraped; footsteps echoed. Pages rustled under his fingers. No one had ever shown him images of what happened in Skrael. He saw them now. They bore an eerie resemblance to the bodies from the church. But that wasn’t what disturbed him.
The Skraelings hadn’t come into his room. That was how he’d survived, he was certain. All that death stayed apart from him, separated by bedroom walls. That was why he’d never heard anything and the night seemed so peaceful.
But in these pictures, it was his bedroom that was the bloodiest. His blanket was black with it, shredded in places and littered with chunks and blobs. A clear trail of blood led to the space beneath his bed. Bloody footprints were everywhere.
Some of them were his.
Shock, they’d said. Trauma. The cold blank way he reacted that scared them all so badly. His grandfather. “I’ll never let them take you.” The same cold blank way he reacted ever after in the face of death and fear.
What was wrong with him?
Promise me. Live.
Never let them take you.
He could let them take him, or he could go someplace where beasts had a purpose. Where they were more important than food. Where sometimes, he could shed his people skin along with its speech. Or he could let them take him back to sterile white rooms.
Finn paused long enough to select a single book before following Hawkins and Verres.